We’re somewhere east of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Coconino National Forest. A bustling film crew crunches back and forth over shifty piles of ancient lava rock. There’s no one around for miles; cellphone service is nonexistent. One car has stubbornly conked out halfway up a steep hill. We’re losing light, and fast.
In any other situation, this would be a recipe for disaster. But on Top Gear America, this unexpected turn of events is par for the course. And as a producer on the show, I’m seeing it all occur in real-time.
For the past 28 seasons and counting, the U.K. version of Top Gear has been the gold standard of high-quality automotive content. Originally a straightforward review series, it underwent a dramatic transformation in 2002. Although the show was as informative as ever, it was also now wildly entertaining to boot, topped off by epic filmmaking.
But Top Gear’s real draw was the iconic trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond as the hosts. They were collaborators. Conspirators. They were brilliant, funny, and as talented in front of the camera as they were behind the wheel.
So when BBC and MotorTrend joined forces to develop Top Gear America, “finding the right cast was the top priority,” said Travis Shakespeare, executive producer of the show for BBC. “There are things we can do as producers to stack the deck to make the best show possible, but if you don’t have that essential lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry, it doesn’t matter how great the production really is, because it just won’t land.”
In other words, they knew that recruiting “car guys” wouldn’t be good enough. This trio had to be downright captivating.
Dax Shepard’s name was on the list from the very start. A car guy through and through, Dax grew up in Detroit with parents who both worked in the automotive industry. While other kids were content with having a license and a car at 16, Dax was roaring around Michigan International Speedway in Corvettes.
And Dax can drive.
“Generally on a film set I’m asked to slow down,” he said. “But on Top Gear America, I’m encouraged to drive as I did in high school. Sometimes I’m even applauded for doing so.”
If Dax was born with the car gene, Rob Corddry has been sequencing it in a lab. Famous for his work on The Daily Show and creator of the comedy Children’s Hospital, Rob’s obsession with cars was just in need of the right outlet.
“I represent the car enthusiast viewer who, like me, has never done these things they’ve longed to do,” he said. “Because I don’t have the pedigree of the other two hosts, I have to put a lot of work into my choices. If I can be so bold, I think I’m pretty good at it.”
Jethro Bovingdon hails from a prolific background in automotive journalism. His career started pretty much right after college when he landed an apprenticeship at Evo magazine in the U.K. So although I personally spent that same summer working at Pottery Barn, Jethro was learning how to drift, driving a new car every week, and honing his writing skills— all on the magazine’s dime. And once he was in that world, he never left. “I guess it’s why I’ve always done this job,” he said.
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